Count with me.
She stretches out her withered hands, splotched with the brown marks but also with life. With effort, she picks them up and puts them back down, a simple, slapping motion. And out of the mouth, which is in the place where the wrinkles converge, comes a soft, unsure voice that increases with confidence as we count on.
Five… six…seven… eight…
I watch them both as we count: on the right is my grandmother, who has taken charge of this encounter with the assertiveness and fierce protection that only a mother who has cared for her own mother can know. On the left is her mother, my great grandmother, carrying with her the weight of ninety eight summers and winters. I know this woman, mostly through stories, pictures, and matching hand knitted sweaters that arrived for my sisters and I every Easter. I know this woman to be a live wire, full of spirit and sense, who drove a mini cooper named Daisy and went to the beach every weekend. But today, I know her to only lift, with effort, her hands.
Let’s start again. Legs this time. One…two…three…four…
It’s been six years since I’ve seen this woman, since I’ve seen anything on this island. Today she does not know my name, but I see the small flicker of recognition when my mother’s name is mentioned, and the way relief relaxes her face when she looks at the face of my grandmother. Today her years number nearly a hundred, but her body mass is probably less than that. Today she says little more than that’s lovely to a bouquet of daffodils, the first promises of spring.
Five… six…seven… eight…
And yet only this morning, I heard stories about her in the War Time Tunnel; stories about how the Germans occupied the island during the second World War, how she refused to leave her own mother’s side, and how for her family, she faced occupation rather than escape to England. I heard about how she, with her Welsh born husband, packed up their belongings and their two small children when ordered by the Nazis to be taken to Germany because he was not of Jersey by blood, and then again of her relief as she was able to unpack again. I heard about her strength, her determination, and the way she held her family together in a time of crisis. I heard about this island, that she loves so much, that I also love. And now I think, maybe in that way, we share something.
I heard about how she was married twice and maybe a little boy crazy, but anyone who looks like she does even at ninety eight has to be forgiven for that. I heard about the way she watched as her son held his father in his arms during his final moments, how she said goodbye to her other half and yet her own heart kept beating.
Very good. Now, can you clap? One…two… three…
This woman, whose skin shows the years but whose mind cannot remember them; this woman I owe so much.
But today, she does not know me, and so I cannot thank her. Instead, with shaking voices of the old and young, we count, because it may be that the pitter patter of the heart heart can out journey the mind.
Today, perhaps, this woman returns to what she did first, as a little girl: count. Today, she might not know that she is mother to two, grandmother to five, a great grandmother to nine. Today, she might not know that she cooked outstanding meals, knitted sweaters and stuffed toys, and passed down anecdotes that will stay in the family for centuries. Today, she might not know the ways her soul was filled or her heart was broken, or even how charming she looks in that jumper.
Today, we only count, because sometimes the heart beats places the mind won’t go.
I wonder where she is, today in her mind. What section of her colorful, vibrant years is she visiting? What season is it? How old is she? I hope, as I watch that sweet mouth open and close, that she is somewhere pleasant in the folds of her mind. That the arms of my grandmother, who rubs lotion on her, are a warm layer of protection over her frail body, so that she can return to a place in time when her heart and mind beat in unison.
The sun pours through the open window, carrying with it the scent of spring. And together in the room with the daffodils declared lovely, we count.